Assemble! The Avengers and the Cementing of the Superhero in Film

Posted: May 11, 2012 in Films
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By now I’m sure a lot of you have seen The Avengers. Some more than once. It’s a wonderful, exciting film that has Hulk-Smashed box office records. Comic book/superhero fans everywhere are loving this. The best opening weekend of all time and the first $200 million opening weekend in history belongs to The Avengers and Marvel Studios. Not Marvel Comics and some place like FOX or Sony/Columbia, but Marvel Studios. This has huge implications for not only the superhero genre, but for filmmaking in general.

From the 1950s on, superheroes were generally considered second rate at the movie theater. They may have made for fun movies and solid serials (I’m thinking Batman and The Adventures of Captain Marvel here), but in feature length film, they were nothing to speak of. From 1950 to 1999 we have such works of art as Condorman, Swamp Thing, Supergirl, Captain America, Darkman, Batman & Robin, Batman Forever, The Punisher, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spawn, and Steel. There were only two superheroes to have decent films made about them during this time: Batman and Superman. But with Batman, you get the luxury of having a story that is as much crime/mystery/thriller as it is comic book. When that formula was departed from in Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, Batman flops along with the rest of them. Superman was good, Superman II solid, but sequels to those were very poor. And four above average comic book films in half a century isn’t a good track record. (I’m counting Superman, Superman II, Batman and Blade).

The success of Blade in 1998 paved the way for the X-Men and Spiderman to have successful big screen debuts. X-Men, Spider-man, X2, and Spider-man 2 were financial and critical successes. Then the money grabbing started. Smelling a get rich quick scheme, Hollywood execs salivated at the chance to bring more comic book characters to life, in return for millions in box office profits. The results? Daredevil, The Punisher, Catwoman, Blade: Trinity, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Superman Returns, Spider-man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Ghost Rider. And before we jump on Marvel for flooding the market with poor efforts, we need to realize that Marvel DID NOT MAKE those films. Separate studios, such as FOX, Columbia/Sony, New Line and more had bought the big screen rights from Marvel Comics hoping to make a quick dime, which they did at the cost of making a good film.

The rescue of the superhero movie came in two phases. The first was when Christopher Nolan and David Goyer penned Batman Begins. Going for realism and not camp, Nolan helmed the first step forward in years in comic book movie land. The Dark Knight followed a few years later, the first true superhero masterpiece. But remember, this is Batman. Batman is believable, Batman is a detective, not a man who can fly.

The second phase was when Marvel Comics finally put their foot down. Enough with other people playing with their toys. Iron Man, the first film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was a hit. It was followed by The Incredible Hulk, the first modern reboot of a superhero franchise, and a definite improvement on Ang Lee’s version. Comic book fans got a look at Nick Fury in Iron Man and Tony Stark in The Incredible Hulk and began longing for the grand prize. Was this going to be a world where superheroes co-existed? A sequel to Iron Man was green lit, and in it we see not only Fury, but the Black Widow and nods at the Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Namor, and the Black Panther. Thor and Captain America movies followed in 2011, both reasonable successes financially and critically, but neither matched Iron Man’s pizzazz. The critics came out wondering if it was possible to make a superhero movie that was both great and not grounded in ‘reality.’ Both Batman and Iron Man were tech and human based, not magical or alien. Punisher: War Zone, Green Lantern, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a Ghost Rider sequel/reboot, they all came and went, ranging from average to bad.

Then there was the question of diluting the market. With Warner Brothers making DC films, FOX, Colombia, and Marvel Studios making Marvel films and whoever else making other comic book films, people were questioning if there were too many superheroes. That all changed the moment that The Avengers hit the big screen. This was it. This is what Marvel was prepping for for five films and four years. Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, Loki, and yes…Thanos, all in the same movie. And Joss Whedon kept to the source material. Yes, there was no Antman or Wasp, but Nick Fury’s shadiness, Cap’s leadership, the Hulk’s rage and Loki’s schemes were all brought beautifully to the big screen with fantastic results. And this should send waves through Hollywood.

Look at the two best comic book movies of all time: The Dark Knight and The Avengers. What do they have in common? They were directed by people who read comics as kids, who are comic fans at heart. The actors read comics, the producers read/wrote comics. This goes against what Hollywood does: find things to make money with. Nolan and Marvel Studios are making films about heroes they love, keeping them faithful to their source and making money off them because they love them and want to share them with other fans, who also love them. There’s really no argument anymore that you can’t make money by sticking to the source material. Not only are there over 40-60 years of material to delve from (in Marvel and DC’s cases), but now a film written and directed by a fan and acted out by (mostly) fans is the first film in history to make $200 million in one weekend.

And it goes on from there. Now, all of a sudden, there isn’t enough room in the year for all the movies people want to see. The Dark Knight Rises comes out this year still. Next year we have  Iron Man 3 and Thor 2. In 2014, we have Captain America 2. They already announced there will be an Avengers sequel. There are talks of new Black Widow, Nick Fury and Hulk solo films, and before The Avengers came out, Marvel Studios was already mulling over movies featuring Antman, Black Panther, the Inhumans, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Dr. Strange. Christopher Nolan is co-producing a new Superman film: Man of Steel. This is it. There is no room for poor efforts. The bar has been raised. What comic book fans have been saying all along is proving true. You can make good films by staying true to our favorite characters. No more mute Deadpools. No more skinny Venoms. No more Catwomen not named Selina Kyle. This is it. And this is it for all films. Hollywood, stop meddling with classic stories, stop adding things that don’t make sense. Do it right. Christopher Nolan did it. Marvel Studios has done it through six films ranging from good (Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger) to excellent (Iron Man, The Avengers). There can be no more excuses. Either do it right, or fail miserably. That is the ultimatum.

  1. Kevin says:

    I’m sorry, but the Superman 1 & 2 were the beautifully done. By FAR the best of the Superhero movies. The first Batman is better than the Dark Knight Rises, though marginally. And Thor is very, very underrated.

  2. Rahmat says:

    well actually, neither nolan or marvel studios stick to the source BLINDLY. they do dissect WHICH element can be translated well to a live action movie and which cannot. for instance, the absence of the pyms..jarvis as an a.i. assistant, instead of the traditional human butler. they do make some changes, however big or small..they’re still changes. and some quite significant.

    the problem they had with green lantern, i think, MOSTLY, because of they’re sticking pretty much TOO CLOSE to the source material (old, the look of Sinestro, and new, the inclusion of Parallax as an evil being). i think ‘adjustments’ are a must in translating comic books to live action movies…but, that’s where the FUN lies. picking and choosing which to change and how much should it be changed.

    Whedon, Feige and Nolan show us just the right way to do this…and i hope others would take notes and learn from them.

    • Totally agree. The most important thing is to stick to the essence of the source. For example, one Iron Man idea before Marvel Studios got it was to have the main bad guy be Howard Stark, who got Tony’s tech and became War Machine. Thank goodness that never happened!

  3. Ronnie Lane says:

    Sorry, but TMNT less than decent? I’m rather amused with this sentiment. TMNT, the live action one, was a great movie and a wonderful adaptation of the comics. If you think it’s absurd, that’s because the TMNT are supposed to be on some level. They’ve always been funny. That’s why they work. If you don’t get the TMNT, that’s all on you, not on the work.

    • I love the Turtles. I enjoyed the movie. But I always distinguish between what I like and what is objectively great. Maybe I should have listed TMNT with the solid films, but I didn’t think it was quite up there. Just missed

      • Ronnie Lane says:

        Whether you think it’s ‘great’ or not, it’s definitely closer to the ballpark of Batman and Superman than of Schumacher’s Batman and Supergirl. At least the first one. The sequels suck, but such is cinematic life. XD

  4. @Ronnie: I’ll agree with that.

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